While we all like numbers, sheer specs are rarely the best way to decide which photography gear will be best for you.
I’ve made some pretty idiotic purchases over the years. Some mistakes only cost me a little money. Some mistakes cost a lot more. Of course, I didn’t realize I was making a bad purchase at the time. I pored over all the specs. I listened to every review I could find — twice, if necessary. I made spreadsheets, comparing various purchasing options side by side. If I’m going to part with my hard-earned money, I want the best. Yet, with all this legwork in place, the hit-or-miss ratio was still just barely 50-50.
Yet, in the last year, I’ve been on a bit of a roll when it comes to my gear purchases. For one, I’ve spent far less on gear overall. That’s not the point of this article, but I think we can all agree that less is more when it comes to money leaving your bank account. But, more than just the numbers, I’ve been far more effective at identifying the tools that stand a better chance of returning on their investment, which, in the end, is the only metric that really matters as a professional photographer.
So, how did I increase my batting average? Here are four questions that I find more valuable than any particular specs.
Do I Actually Need to Buy Anything at All?
Well, first, we must establish that it’s far more beneficial to spend your time and energy thinking about what you want to shoot rather than what tool you want to use to shoot it with. This seems obvious, but it's something that every photographer at every level will lose sight of from time to time. So, before making a gear purchase decision, ask yourself the simple question. Can you accomplish what you need with the gear that you already have?
Yes, the added resolution is nice. Yes, new features are cool. 4K is cooler than 1080. IBIS is fun to say. But take an honest look at the images you shoot and that you want to shoot. Do you absolutely need any of those things in order to accomplish your end goal? IBIS, for instance, is a great way to get sharper images at slower shutter speeds. But, do you actually ever shoot at those slower shutter speeds? Perhaps you do, and I’m not saying this holds true for everyone. But if camera shake isn’t a problem you identified prior to seeing the press release for a new camera, then it’s likely that the feature would fall into the “nice to have” category rather than be a required upgrade.
Or, let’s say that you do shoot in situations where IBIS would be a benefit, but only on rare occasions. Might it be more cost-effective to simply break out that old rickety tripod for those occasions, stick with the camera body you’ve already got, and spend the money elsewhere? I have nothing against IBIS. I'm simply using it to make a point. Just because something is new and improved doesn't mean you will actually use the feature in practice. And if you're not going to actually use it, do you really need it?
Do I Need the Newest Version?
Camera companies sell on specs. The new product releases are always accompanied by statistics in bold letters like the photographic equivalent of the back of a baseball card. Because gear buying can sometimes be confusing, and none of us want to make a mistake, we often rely on these statistics to help guide our personal buying decisions. Camera A has 24 megapixels. But Camera B has 24.5 megapixels. So clearly, camera B is the best camera ever made.
Now, I’m not going to say that stats don’t matter at all. Depending on your clients, you may desire a certain amount of resolution. Or, if you are a certain kind of photographer, frame rate might be a legitimate dealbreaker. There are real reasons to take stats into account when deciding whether or not to buy.
But here’s the thing. Once you decide what lane you belong to, whether it be someone who needs to prioritize resolution, or frame rate, or any other metric, the differences between individual camera models are rarely as big a gap as we assume. Pretty much, if you own a camera that was manufactured in, let’s say, the last 5-7 years, there’s a good chance that it will be able to deliver excellent image quality, assuming you know how to use it.
As an example, one of the absolute best purchases I’ve made recently was investing in a Nikon D750. I should point out that I bought it in 2019, five years after its initial release, and after the release of far fancier, newer, and more technologically advanced cameras. I bought it because I needed a backup camera and didn’t want to spend a lot. The camera body itself was available brand new for less than many mirrorless point-and-shoots due to a holiday sale. So, I went for it, assuming that it would serve its purpose as an emergency camera, but rarely leave the bag. But I immediately fell in love with shooting with it, and now, it regularly finds its way into the rotation. It alternates in with far newer and more “impressive” cameras, often within the same shoot. But, despite its advanced age, I, and more importantly, my clients can see no difference at all in terms of image quality. The only difference is that I spent about one third of the money to acquire it. I’d say that’s a good return on investment.
Will It Make Your Job Easier?
Buying strobes is always an adventure. Like cameras, lighting gear comes in 31 different flavors, and choosing just one can be a challenge. I’ve written entire articles about my decision to purchase my first major lighting kit, the Profoto Acute 2400 pack and head system, towards the beginning of my career. That initial investment set me back a large chunk of change at the time, yet still goes down as one of the best investments I’ve ever made. For almost 15 years, I have lugged my big pelican case with the pack and three heads to almost every shoot I’ve done. My trunk, my slim door frames, and even my shins have the marks to prove just how rugged the whole thing is. Day in and day out, the system has just gotten the job done. Like a trusted lieutenant, I always feel more comfortable when it is with me in times of battle.
But, of course, a lot has happened in 15 years, and my needs as a professional photographer have evolved. Both I and the subjects I shoot have gotten far more mobile. The Acute system pumps out a lot of power, but the flash duration isn’t really meant to freeze action. I can work around this, but the time had eventually come when flash duration was becoming more important to me than pure output. To that end, I recently searched the used market and ended up getting a pair of Profoto D2s. They weren’t quite as strong as my 2,400-watt pack, but they had the shortest flash duration in the Profoto line.
There are many lighting companies, and some might balk at the price of Profoto units. That’s understandable. But, the downright dependability of my original Profoto purchase has been enough to prove to be the value of the investment. And, more importantly for our current discussion, because I already had been in the system for 15 years, I already owned a large selection of Profoto modifiers and accessories, meaningless peripheral investment with the D2s.
I was mainly interested in the flash duration when I purchased the new lighting kit. But what makes it a good example for this section are all the unexpected ancillary benefits. For one, do you remember how I said I had put holes in many of the walls in my house trying to lug that big lighting case in-and-out every day? Well, with the smaller D2 monoblocks, I now find myself only carrying around a small carry-on sized case about a third the size of my old kit. Looking at them side by side in the image above, the difference is pretty striking. Feeling the difference on my back of carrying the smaller bag versus the bigger case drives the point home even more. No more remembering to bend my knees before digging deep to get my lighting case up and over the back ledge of my car and into the trunk. Now, I toss the D2 duo kit into my backseat right alongside my camera backpack and keep on moving.
Because I also own a Profoto B10 system with the Profoto Air Remote, I am also able now to use the B10 in tandem with the D2s and control all of them separately with the Air Remote. Not that I’m lazy or anything, but I definitely don’t hate being able to change my power settings without having to physically walk over to each light. I originally balked at the idea of having to buy a proprietary Profoto trigger for my lights, when I already owned a small army of Pocket Wizards. But I admit that finally giving in has sped up my workflow considerably. I’d argue that it has also urged me to push my lighting even further, as changing lighting ratios is now far simpler and less cumbersome.
Even purchasing the system used, it wasn’t exactly cheap. And it did necessitate me selling off some of my less successful purchases in order to afford it. But the new lighting setup instantly made my job easier and well redeemed my investment.
Will It Get Along With Others?
I am a Nikonian. Like my earlier discussion of Profoto gear, I don’t say that to try and convince you that the Nikon brand is better or worse than any other brand. This same advice applies no matter your preferred brand. Rather, I point out that fact because having forgotten it myself has cost me a lot of ills spent money over the years. And reclaiming that identity has led to far better-purchasing decisions.
For years, this was no question at all. My first professional camera was a Nikon. I bought all Nikon lenses and accessories. My camera upgrades were completely based on Nikon’s product release schedule. I never yearned for other companies' offerings simply because I didn’t know anything about what they were offering. It didn’t matter, because I was already in the Nikon family. This may sound uninformed, but it was also shockingly effective at managing expenses. And, it’s important to point out that I was never at a loss for creating the images I wanted. I just might not have had the latest tools in hand to produce them. But, as I stated in the earlier section, who really cares if you have the newest tools, so long as you get the desired results?
Then came a time a couple of years ago when I began flirting with other brands — more out of boredom than anything else. And just like any other wandering eye, if you go looking for something better, you will often find it. Or, maybe more accurately, you will convince yourself that you’ve found it when, in actuality, you are just getting a brief rush from trying something new.
I never sold off my Nikon system, but I did quickly find myself with multiple systems strewn about the house. Each system grew itself with an assortment of lenses and accessories. Now, instead of bringing one camera bag to set, I’d bring three. Now, instead of trying to keep up with updates from one company, I was trying to keep up with updates from the entire camera market.
To be sure, it was fun to play the field. But none of the new purchases were making my business more efficient. And despite many of the other brands having certain clear technological benefits over my Nikon, when the time came to put my name and reputation on the line, and things absolutely had to go smoothly on set, it was the Nikon I reached for every time.
Again, this is not to disparage any other brand. It’s just that in my own personal workflow and shooting style, the system that I’d been using my entire career and built up a well of trust in was just the best tool to accomplish my work. The other systems were great, but I always, without fail, ended up back at my Nikon at the end of the day.
I quickly realized that all of the money I was putting into the other cameras and related accessories was not benefiting me at all professionally. I got a lot out of those other cameras when shooting just for fun. But ultimately, they offered little return on investment in business terms. Were I not a professional photographer, this wouldn’t be a problem at all. But, because this is my business, I needed every dime I spent on gear to have a direct correlation to paying clients.
So, little by little, I began to sell off the bulk of my non-Nikon gear and return to basics. It’s not as sexy as being able to jump between brands from day-to-day, but it is far more economically efficient. I can ignore new camera releases from other brands, removing that urge to upgrade my camera every three months. Like staying within the Profoto line, staying within the Nikon line allows me to share my accessories between all my cameras. So, I don’t need duplicate sets of lenses. Nor do I need to carry three separate camera bags anymore, as I can do 99% of what I need out of a single backpack. Like my shrinking lighting kit, my back thanks me for this decision every day.
Since I’ve returned home to Nikon, it has also improved my photography because it has removed any need to consider what camera I am going to use for any given job. Instead of wasting brainpower on selecting the tool I’m going to use, all I now need to worry about what I want to shoot and how I’m going to make it look.
Less is more when it comes to gear. Focusing less on gear and more on creativity is a winning formula every time. And often, a piece of gear's ability to disappear into your workflow can be far more valuable than any individual statistic.